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I beckon to the tall, spectral kid behind me.“Found this place two nights ago, when there were no empty practice rooms.”
He opens the heavy door into the abandoned auditorium, which smells faintly of aging, peeling paint and cotton fibers springing out of squeaky chairs. “After you, ma’am.”
Downstairs are the dank, poorly ventilated cubicles where we students spend countless hours chasing, but never quite catching, perfection. We’re in another dimension now, above it all. He lazily surveys our overheated surroundings and runs a hand through combed, gelled, side-parted hair.
“All this time, I never knew there was a whole auditorium up here.” A faint Russian accent pervades his words, though he actively tries to suppress it.
His coloring seems nearly normal in the dark. Usually, he looks like an albino cat, with that snowy hair dusting his elegant white face. His huge eyes are a dynamic aquamarine, a color you can’t find in the paint aisle at Michael’s. The kid turns the other girls in my dorm into squealing kindergartners.
“I wonder what the acoustics are like in here.” He removes the strap of his violin case from his shoulder, painstakingly sets it on a chair, and unpacks Cecilia, the honey-colored 1714 instrument handed down through three generations of his family. He takes off his antique watch and folds it, hinge by hinge, into my hand for safekeeping.
I collapse squeakily into a dusty red seat. I’ve practiced violin all morning, but he just got up. Psh. Home-schooled kids have such abnormal sleep schedules.
“Can I play for you?” he requests. “And can you make some honest comments afterwards?”
“Whatevs.” It would be an honor. The few times I’ve heard him, he was pumping out frighteningly difficult Paganini caprices like they were no big deal.
He launches into a Bach fugue without even warming up. Even after thirty minutes of scales, I can’t play a piece that complicated. Damn.
The stately chord progression reverberates around me. His long white fingers expertly stop the strings; his bow catches every note. Sometimes, his left hand moves too quickly for my brain to process. Cecilia sings.
But he’s missing something. Maybe it’s the void on his face even when the harmonies are too beautiful to tolerate, or the concrete stillness of his body. Yesterday, I saw him isolate his every joint while dancing to Skrillex, sculpting ephemeral twisted shapes out of willowy limbs and radiating swag mixed with anger. This empty-hearted playing is not the best he can do; it doesn’t make me feel anything except pitying admiration.
All the parts of him don’t click together. This kid wears black skinny jeans, high-top sneakers, gothic-motif tee shirts, and Skullcandy headphones around his neck as if they were jewelry - a rockstar wannabe, playing Bach.
As I ponder his disjointedness, his bow crash-lands, producing a little squeak. “Dammit!”
“What! Dude, that was great. I was quite enjoying myself.”
He looks at the ceiling, like an angel in a Renaissance painting about to ascend to heaven. “I played out of tune, and this room echoes, so you can’t hear that my bow-strokes are too short.”
“Nuh-uh. You should perform that fugue in a concert sometime.”
“Ha. My mom would kill me. I can’t even practice in my house without her yelling, ‘More bow!’ from the living room.” I start to protest, but he continues, “Right now I sound like crap.”
“Shut up.” I rest a hand on his shoulder, at my eye level. A wave of cloying cologne assaults my nostrils, but I don’t step back. “How do you think that makes me feel?”
“But music is not your future, correct?” He trills his R’s; in his anger, his caramel voice still sounds like a song. “I have trained to be an artist since I was born. I went to a special music school in St. Petersburg. I didn’t go to high school when I moved to the States, so I could practice more. I don’t have friends at home. I barely leave my house-”
“You don’t see the sun? That’s why you look like a vampire!” When his huge eyes expand menacingly, I back away with a grin. “Ah, don’t hurt me!”
“I would never hit a girl.” He smiles, quickly and perfectly. “And as I was saying -- I like to be here with you and the other musicians, but they’re all so good. I’m not.”
“Dude, you’re too hard on yourself.”
“That is a good thing - the only way to improve as an artist -” He stares at me helplessly, without blinking once. It’s another of his peculiar habits.
“By messing up your self-esteem? By not taking compliments?”
“I wish people would stop with those. I don’t like myself much, anyway.”
Ignoring the cologne smell, I give him the biggest bear hug my short arms can manage. A spotlight of sun enters from a window on the ceiling and illuminates his pearly face’s peerless architecture. At times like this, I can’t believe that this phantasm of a kid is human like the rest of us.
He doesn’t like himself?
Ridiculous. I wish I could play, dance, dress, speak...like he does.
But is this who he wanted to be? His maternal grandparents taught him to be a perfect gentleman. Random genetic miracles formed his features according to the Golden Ratio. Fashion dictated his effortlessly rebellious wardrobe. His first languages, Russian and music, assured that he’d speak English with a melody in every phrase. And his family molded him into the enviable violinist he is today.
He’s thin and cold in my embrace; his arms around me feel flimsy. He’s so carefully crafted, so delicate and ethereal, that I want to preserve him in a glass case for eternity.
Then I realize, with amazement and horror:
This kid isn’t an artist at all. He is a living masterpiece.